iPad for Writers – Part 1: Changing Behaviors

I’ve been a dedicated Mac user since 2003, though my history with the platform goes back further. My family had a terrible System 7 machine in the mid-’90s and before that, I was using an early Mac in the school computer lab to play the Oregon Trail and Math Racer.

I switched to PC in the mid-’90s, but no matter what I used, there was one constant among every machine: bulk. From big Macs to towering Windows machines to chunky PowerBooks and MacBooks, the computer I used was always large and in charge of my life. Of course, that was the limitation of the time. Laptops weren’t as slim and light as they are today, but they’ve always been heavy on the software and my tolerance for that bloat has waned over time.

I used to love having simultaneous access to the web and my music and my word processor and every other app I could get my hands on. I could rearrange windows so I was able to see four, five, six, or more applications at once.

And it was killing my productivity. Many people will throw constant notifications under the bus as the reason for their lack of focus, but notifications come and go with the flick of a finger. It’s the potential for procrastination that has forced me to rethink how I work and where my work gets done.

That browser window I have open behind Scrivener? I can watch YouTube. Or Netflix. Or read any number of websites that have nothing to do with the words I’m trying to write. Yes, there are ways to restrict access to certain apps and websites, but I’ll always be able to justify disabling them for one reason or another and then I’ll be back up to my old ways in no time. And the words? They’ll never get written.

What has worked for me, however, are boundaries. Whether self-imposed or hard deadlines set by someone else, I’ve always thrived by working within narrow confines. It’s not about locking distractions out, but locking myself into something I can’t get out of. I’ve written two novels by hand, I write for a popular podcast that requires a certain number of scripts per month, and I have goals I’d like to reach with my own novels, such as beginning the querying process for my latest by this June.

Writing a book in a notebook with pens and pencils was extremely frustrating, but it also taught me to be thoughtful with my words and to plan ahead so I wouldn’t get stuck wondering where I wanted my plot or characters to go. Unfortunately, the task was tedious and painful. I don’t plan on ever writing another book by hand again, but there are other ways to slow down and focus. The iPad has helped me in that regard.

I bought the first iPad when it came out in 2010, but the software and capabilities were pretty limited so early on in the product’s life. I eventually upgraded to an iPad 4. Again, it was hard to shift my workload to the tablet at the time due to a lack of proper file access and multitasking. I thought I might never use another iPad again, seeing as how they were always so hampered by glorified phone software.

Then I picked up a 9.7" iPad a few years ago. Technically a "Pro" model, the device allowed me to use two apps side-by-side and when paired with the Brydge Bluetooth keyboard, I felt like I was carrying around a compact laptop designed for focused work. I had Scrivener, Apple’s Pages, a browser to do research, I could disable notifications with a few taps, and BOOM — full-on focus mode to write books and scripts with minimal distractions.

And that’s what this all comes down to, isn’t it? Distraction. That’s what I’ve really liked most about moving my work over to the iPad: the lack of distraction. The multitasking is good enough without getting in the way or giving me too many options. There’s less to fiddle with. I can choose to work in one app and then move to another if I choose, but I usually don’t because it’s cumbersome, so I stay where I am and get my work done more quickly.

I’m going to use this series, as long as it runs, to explain my transition from laptop to iPad. I’ll talk about the apps and services, accessories, and shortcuts I use as a working writer to get the words down. Hopefully this will help anyone wondering if they can also make the switch. It won’t always be pretty or seamless–iOS is still quite limited in specific, crucial ways–but it will get better and with it, so will I.

The next article in this series will focus on apps, specifically Scrivener and Pages, as they are the two main word processors I use daily. If you have any questions about how I use them or problems you’re looking to troubleshoot, feel free to drop me a line on either my contact form or on Twitter.

The 333 Email System

Like most people, I struggle with email every day.

Wow, that sounds a lot like an infomercial. I mean, I guess this kind of is? Long story short, I got tired of a lot of the systems out there for managing my inbox because:

  1. I am my own man with my own hangups about people telling me what to do.
  2. I get a lot of email.

I tried Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero method, which is a great concept and for a while, it worked okay. I didn’t adhere to it as strictly as some, but I did take away a few things that have helped me cut down on what was sitting in my inbox.

That said, I needed something a little less…formulated. The problem with systems like Inbox Zero, or David Allen’s Getting Things Done, or even Ryder Carroll’s Bullet Journal method is that they are systems. They are prescriptive, despite their creators insisting you can "do it your own way."

So, I tend to pull bits and pieces from each, leaving me with a piecemeal conglomeration of half-solutions. I haven’t gotten around to reconciling my analog/digital note-taking problems, so I’ll hold off on the whole Bullet Journal thing for a while. Same goes for GTD.

But email? Email I can fix.

The concept is simple. I call it the "333 System."

  • Three questions.
  • Three folders.
  • Three seconds.

(I added the folders bit to make it sound like a complete "thing," but really it’s up to you how you organize your emails.)

The whole thing hinges on the three questions and three seconds. I’m not the kind of person who can set aside time to review my email at specific intervals throughout the day, especially at work. Unfortunately, I work at a company where the primary form of communication is email. It’s gross, but it’s how we do, so I need to be ready to jump in at any time.

That’s where the three seconds comes into play. I have three seconds to decide what to do with that email, which is why I ask myself three questions, which I refer to as the "three I’s":

  1. Immediate? Can this email be dealt with right now? If it just needs a quick reply or to be filed, I can take care of that and get rid of it.
  2. Information? Does this email contain information I’ll need for later? I can keep that info in a running Google Doc, or a Draft, or a note and delete/archive the email away.
  3. Item? This was the closest word I could get to the concept in my head that would give me the last "I" I needed. Basically, if this can’t be done right away, can it be added to my to-do list for later so I can process the email itself out of my inbox?

These questions are the first things I ask myself when I get a new email notification and they’ve been working. I’ve been able to be more productive and get in and out of my inbox more quickly because of them.

As for the three folders, this part of the system is completely optional. You can use as many folders as you want if you’d prefer to organize your messages differently, but I like using three. Mainly, I hate long sidebars full of folders.

I use a service called Sanebox, which automatically filters my email based on type into folders like "Later" for newsletters/retail alerts, and "Blackhole" for emails I no longer want to receive. There’s also my general "Archive" folder for things I want to keep, but don’t necessarily need to have categorized.

For work, I have folders for specific projects because I might need to find something from six months ago in a short amount of time and I don’t feel like using Outlook’s search function to sift through thousands of messages. The key is the time spent in deciding what to do with the email and where it’s supposed to go, not how many folders I use to organize it all.

But for personal email? I really only need:

  1. An Archive folder
  2. A Later folder
  3. And an Unsubscribe folder

If you don’t use something like Sanebox, you can manually drag your newsletters and retail emails into the Later folder and save them for processing completely when you have some downtime.

Same goes for the Unsubscribe folder. You can give yourself three seconds to decide if this is something you no longer want to get delivered to you and add it to the folder so you can address it when you have more time.

The Archive folder is really for email you’ve already handled and need to file away. Stuff you probably won’t need to go back to again after you’ve replied or taken the information out of it.

The biggest thing I try to remember is that it is not about eliminating the email from my inbox as quickly as possible. I mean it is, but it’s more than that. It’s about processing the email I get in a meaningful way so it’s not weighing me down later. A hastily deleted email I might need later is just as burdensome as one still sitting in my inbox.

And that’s it. That’s my email system. Pretty simple I think. It’s been working for me and I figured I might share it for anyone either drowning in email or struggling to use an existing system for triaging new messages.

Hope it helps.

Rodecaster Pro Podcasting Studio

Nice writeup from Vlad Savov at the Verge on the new Rodecaster Pro all-in-one podcasting studio:

The optimal scenarios for using the Rodecaster Pro aren’t too numerous, but once you hit on one, you’ll really appreciate its existence. Say you’re part of a daily podcast with a couple of your friends, you like to take calls from expert guests, and you really don’t want to spend much time on post-processing. Get yourself one of these, and you’ll be able to mute and isolate mic channels on the fly, add in jingles and intro music, and maintain a level of reliable quality that makes additional work mostly unnecessary. All of that becomes doubly true for live broadcasts, where the immediate quality and polish that the Rodecaster Pro provides become most apparent.

Also, check out this video review from Curtis Judd. He walks through the features and demonstrates the Rodecaster’s versatility.

Bathroom Reading – February 14, 2019

A collection of interesting reads from around the web to read after your second cup of coffee:

Dan Mallory, 2 Starkly Similar Novels and the Puzzle of Plagiarism” – the continuing saga of The Woman in the Window author Dan Mallory (A.J. Finn), first described in an eye-opening exposé in The New Yorker.

What it Takes to Survive As a Writer Today” – Michael Seidlinger asks the question: What happens to art when artists cannot afford to create it?

What Should I Do If I’m Ashamed of My Published Work?” – hat tip to Iain Broome and his wonderful weekly newsletter for pointing me to this. Two authors are ashamed to have their first novels out in the world. What are they to do? (If you’re a writer, you should subscribe to Iain’s newsletter. Go. I’ll wait.)

Under the Boot” – a deep dive into the supposed “transformation” of right-wing pundit turned slightly-less-right-wing blowhard Max Boot.

On Literary Journal Submission Fees and Why Submittable is Bad for Writers

I’m a fierce defender of small businesses. My family has owned a music store and studio in New Jersey for over fifteen years and I hope to one day open my own small bookstore, so when I hear independent operations are closing due to low sales or high rents, it scares me. I already see the toll increased rents have taken on New York City, where small mom-and-pop delis and pizza places have been conquered by the invading armies of Pret a Mangers and Starbucks.

The city seems to be actively trying to push these stores out with the help of predatory landlords and holding companies. It’s not the businesses’ fault. They didn’t ask for higher rents and many have closed because they didn’t pass those expenses on to their customers.

The same cannot be said for the publishing industry, specifically literary journals. Journals often operate at a loss and the very successful ones manage to break even. No one starts a journal or magazine for the money. They do it to publish their friends and colleagues, or they want to give a platform to marginalized voices, or they want to dip their toes into the industry as a way of building up their own resumes, for example.

Many journals are run by volunteers who love the work and love working with authors enough that they don’t mind giving up their free time to put out something great. Others are run by a skeleton crew barely making enough to pay their internet bill. This is America and sadly still a capitalist society, so those bills must be paid. It’s not too much for someone running a business to say, “Hey, I’d like to be paid for my work.” I agree. The question then becomes, “Who’s going to pay?”

If you’re The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, or Ploughshares, three of the most popular and widely read literary journals in America, the answer is simple: the writers.

To submit a work of short fiction to the Iowa Review, the writer is expected to pay a fee of $4. For the Missouri Review, it’s $3.50, and Ploughshares charges $3. Mind you, these are all for digital submissions. Writers who want to print their stories, stuff them in an envelope, and submit them for potential publication can do so for the cost of shipping without incurring an extra fee from the magazine. You might be wondering why mailing physical documents that take up space doesn’t cost extra, but uploading a digital file suddenly requires you to pull out your credit card.

Blame submission managers. These online filing systems are used by literary journals and even some literary agencies to collect and organize the deluge of submissions they get each day. Fill out a form, upload a document, and you’re suddenly a new, easily searchable record in their database. The most popular of these software services is Submittable, which boasts The New Yorker, NPR, and Glimmer Train as users of their platform.

I’ve used it as a writer and I do enjoy the experience. I can see all my current submissions and get notified about acceptances and rejections all on one page. No more digging through emails or maintaining a spreadsheet. Very convenient. But that convenience comes with a cost. According to Jane Friedman back in 2015, Submittable had several tiers to choose from depending on an operation’s size:

Professional Plan
300 entries/month and 8 staffers/readers
$160 per year

Premier Plan
800 entries/month and 20 staffers/readers
$325 per year

Enterprise Plan
2000 entries/month and unlimited staffers/readers
$1100 per year

That was 2015. If prices haven’t stayed the same, they most certainly have gone up.

However, as I said before, Submittable is very convenient. So convenient, in fact, it has had negative consequences for smaller journals. Jane Friedman again:

This efficiency and frictionless submissions process has come with a cost: submissions can be made with very little effort by the writer—which increases the volume of submissions that journals receive—and publications have to pay to use Submittable.

So a journal that was originally getting by on the Professional Plan can suddenly see its inbox growing into an Enterprise-level plan in a month to accommodate the influx. $1100 per year (plus tax) comes out to about $100 per month to license Submittable. A steep fee for a journal struggling to pay its authors and artists as subscriptions dry up. And with many magazines turning to the internet for first publication, those stories are often read by audiences for free. The only ways to make up the costs are to run ads or put everything behind a paywall, which doesn’t work.

But journals have found a third option in their bread and butter. The writers are the ones who cover Submittable’s onerous fees by tossing a few bucks into the journal’s open guitar case upon submission. Three dollars here, four dollars there. A latte. A premium phone app. Nothing, right?

Is it still “nothing” if the average income for a writer is $6,080? That was the case in 2017 according to a recent Author’s Guild survey. That’s “down from $10,500 in the guild’s 2009 survey.” With authors living WELL below the poverty line to “do what they love,” why are journals forcing the most vulnerable demographic to forego their hard-earned money to gamble on submissions with no guarantee of success? What about LGBTQA+ and writers of color, many of whom see even less in their pockets from their work and are already at a disadvantage, both financially and in what outlets will accept their work?

(And I know some magazines will work with authors in financial straits to waive those fees, but it shouldn’t be on the author to negotiate that. It’s a shitty thing to force someone to announce their financial status just to submit a piece.)

A story that sees a handful of rejections before finally being published might cost that author a week’s worth of food, or make them short on rent, and there’s no guarantee they’ll get paid upon publication. But at least they’ll get the exposure.

I don’t know about you, but my bank doesn’t accept exposure in lieu of a mortgage payment. Hell, people die of exposure.

So, who’s to blame for all these fees? I don’t think it’s fair to lay it all at the feet of the journals who are just trying to get by while also making things easier on themselves. Labors of love are still laborious. Digging through a mountain of email to find a single diamond is no easy feat. However, dragging a hulking system meant for The New Yorker into your operation and then making writers pay for it is also unacceptable.

There are donations. There are grants. There are Patreon and Kickstarter. There’s the possibility of taking a print publication online and eliminating the costly overhead of printing and distributing a physical magazine. So many options, none of which involve forcing the writer to pay to play.

I am a firm believer in the philosophy that money should always flow to the writer, never from them. A $3 submission fee is not insignificant when one is trying to build up their writing credits while destroying their financial credit. Maybe journals would get fewer garbage submissions if they went back to the old ways. There are also free alternatives in the form of WordPress plugins and Trello (Trello won’t manage or collect submissions automatically, but makes triaging them easier from an editorial perspective).

What’s most important is understanding that if something is making your life easier while negatively affecting the lives of the people you depend on to make your living, it’s not worth the convenience.

Oh, and remember how I mentioned Glimmer Train was a Submittable client? Despite their numerous contests and steep fees, even they couldn’t survive. Their last issue comes out in October.